Category Archives: Misadventures

Stakes vs Motivation in Screenwriting

takes, it turns out, are everything.

When I think about what’s at stake in my life. What I could lose that would just devastate me. It’s the simplest things: Health, love and home. None of the other details really, truly matter.

No accident that those are always the stakes in any big movie.

Previously I posted about Writing For Americans. Thoughts on trying to overcome my passive Canadian upbringing to write more active protagonists. Seems despite my best efforts, I’m still struggling to escape my old ways.

My best efforts included constantly asking myself – scene for scene – what’s my character’s motivation? Is it strong enough? If you’ve set a hero on a journey, what’s keeping him on that journey beat for beat?

Motivation. That’s what I told myself it had to be about.

So whenever I’d discuss scripts with Manager I’d pay close attention to notes about the stakes. That’s the word he kept using. Stakes. What are the stakes? Increase the stakes. And I’d echo back: Got it, I’ll work on the protagonist’s motivation.


Concept unclear.

I was not listening.

Motivation and stakes are not the same thing.

However without much consideration, I’d decided they were exactly the same thing.

A while back I told you about an emotional debacle concerning Script #2. It was dead in the water. This week I dusted it off for another look. Manager’s problem with it had always seemed to be the lack of stakes.

Lack of motivation is of course all I heard at the time.

On review I really thought about that critical difference between those two factors. Motivation is something that propels us forward. Forward equals active protagonist, I’d decided. But here’s the thing I’ve realized:

Motivation is relative. Stakes are absolute.

As a writer I can argue that a character is gonna run into a burning building to look for survivors because he’s a good Samaritan. He’s just that good a guy. But his motivation relative to the person reading the script may be completely unrealistic.

However, the actions of a hero that rushes into a burning building because his wife is on the top floor screaming for her life do not need explaining. He absolutely has something tremendous at stake.

That little difference means everything.

And once you know to look for it you can’t watch a Hollywood movie without seeing it in every scene. Every moment that passes the hero is not fighting to gain something, they’re fighting not to lose it. And that something is always one of those big name stakes: Health. Love. Home.

Kind of embarrassing I’m only now trying to stress this in my writing. I might have had an option on the table years ago.

Not to say great stories can’t be written about motivation over life and death stakes. But you may be hard pressed to get them made into blockbuster Hollywood films these days.

Perhaps I’d have realized this distinction sooner if I had more at stake in own life. I’ve got plenty of motivation. No question about that. Things at stake, however, not so much. Which is a good thing. Something I’m fortunate to have. Health, love and home.

My life would make a super boring Hollywood movie, though.


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Are You Sure You’re Talking About Me?

 attended university for some reason. While there I had a very strange experience. First semester, first week, a professor was doing attendance. That was strange enough at the university level, but what happened next was statistically nothing short of incredible.

I could feel the kid next to me turn and stare as my name was called. Then his name was called. And it was my turn to twist my neck and stare. We stared at each other in amazement. Wonder. Even the professor scratched his head.

But for a three letter suffix at the end of this complete stranger’s surname our names were identical. First and last.

Until that day we’d never met. Never uttered a word to one another. Seating in the classroom was at our discretion. Random. Somehow two people of the same age, enrolled in the same program, who shared 85% of the same name had plunked down next to one another.

I supposed having the exact same name would have been quite something. But my name isn’t Michael Smith or Mohamed Ahmed. It’s a bit off the beaten track. So the odds on an 85% match was remarkable.

Memorable to say the least.

The other day I got a call from a Hollywood producer. And not to abuse a term, this is a bona fide Hollywood money man who’s movies I did not have to dig up from the annals of the internet to watch. I’d seen them all. And liked them very much.

He’d come across some of my work. Not my screenwriting but my directing work. And that’s a pretty small body of work, I have to tell you. He was calling to tell me that he liked what he’d seen.

Now, when a guy who spends millions of dollars on motion pictures tells you he likes your motion pictures… Time sort of stops.

Often I mentally step out of a conversation. Sometimes even during very important conversations. I mentally step out and start analyzing the conversation itself. The interaction. Sometimes I just contemplate things like how telephones work. I try to control this habit as much as possible.

When bona fide Hollywood players call me up, however, I usually only mentally step out to wonder one thing: Are you sure you’ve got the right guy? I only think it. Bite my lip. Are you sure you’re talking about me?

I attended university for three years. At the end of that period I had a one on one pre-graduation interview with one of my professors. He began by telling me that I was a bit of an enigma to him. My work was often very good but then other times it was not very good at all. And my lack of attendance, he said, was rather unacceptable–

Hang on. You can bash my work. That’s fine. But my attendance is solid. He checks his notes. Furrows his brow. Wait– Aren’t you “Michael Smithson”?

No, damn it! I’m “Michael Smith”!

He’d confused me with my phonetic doppelgänger. And for how long, who knows. The entire three years? Had other professors done the same? I know that to the other students I’d become known as the other guy. So that wasn’t great. And who’s work was good vs who’s work was not very good at all is one for the ages. But I did graduate, that much I know.

Even after we hang up, the feeling stays with me. Every time. Every time I get off the phone after an incredible call. A call from someone who can truly help me realize what often times feel like impossible dreams. All I can do is wonder. Am I really the person they think I am? Did someone read the credits wrong? Is my doppelgänger still out there? Am I ever living off his thunder? Is he ever living off mine?

It’s not til the follow up email that I know for sure.

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The Young Writer

ust a polite nod. That was the extent of our meeting. So it’s not like I know the guy.

I was in the lobby of a ridiculously lavish hotel. It was packed with industry people, in town for the festival. The young writer and a couple friends stopped to say hi to Manager with whom I was chatting. They exchanged pleasantries. I smiled accommodatingly.

But my smile was nothing next to the grin on the young writer’s face. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word beaming in my own writing, but this kid was beaming.

Twenties, bearded, round, wearing brand new jeans and a clever t-shirt. The typical writer aesthetic. Except for that smile.

Like I said, it was a lavish lobby, but this guy was looking around like he’d just awakened in El Dorado.

They departed. Manager informed me that the young writer’s movie had just sold in a bidding war the night before. Millions more than it cost to make.

I envied that smile. That uncontrollable beaming.

I envied it for a while. Knew that soon it’d be me waking up in El Dorado.

Regrettably, I didn’t see the young writer’s movie while I was in town for the festival. I have seen it since however. It’s given me time to reflect.

The film will live on much longer than the smile.

I think about my own future. Where this is all headed.

I’m going to sound like an ungrateful prick right now, or someone who’s bitten off more than they can chew but I’m not sure I want anything more than that smile.

I’ve taught myself how to write screenplays. Knocked on doors for years. Finally landed incredible representation. An option on my script. With luck, it will become a film and play at a festival. And… I’m not sure I need the rest of it.

The film release six months later? The career? The politics that I’m already starting to see? The lack of creative control? The who-knows-what-else?

It’s something I’ve thought about recently. Maybe even shared here. I’ve begun to wonder whether or not “breaking in” was all this was ever about. The self satisfaction of knowing that I could do it and then on to other summits. Because I don’t hear a lot of stories about what a pleasant industry this is to work in. So is that something I even want?

Maybe the big beaming smile is the better note to go out on.

I often get ahead of myself.

Because that big smile is still a while off yet. I’ve got some time to decide. Decide whether or not to check this whole thing off my life’s to-do list and just retreat into my forest, where I’m always happy… Or to see if there’s more to El Dorado than just the lobby.


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Thank Goodness for Geeks in Suits

emember the Star Wars Kid? The overweight, French Canadian kid who’s life was ruined when some highschool classmates put this selfie video (below) of his on the internet? And we all had a laugh. And he went into extensive therapy.

The thing about that video was – and I’m sure I’m not the first to say it – we all saw ourselves in 14 year old Ghyslain Raza aka the Star Wars Kid.

I don’t care if you’re the jockiest jock who throws invisible footballs in your bedroom or the prissiest meangirl who jerks her hand away laughing like Pretty Woman in her mirror, you saw yourself in Ghyslain Raza.

Some of us were confident enough to admit it. While many more would sooner die than invite the comparison.

Ghyslain Raza was geeking on Star Wars. He had been so moved by a fictitious world that his fantasy took on a physical exhibition. But it wasn’t his fictitious world. He didn’t dream it up. George Lucas did.

I’ve been reviewing script notes from the producer who’s optioning my screenplay.

Here’s something I didn’t know about myself until recently: I write techno-thrillers. My manager said so in passing a while back in reference to my script. I didn’t even know that was a genre. I’d never even heard the term.

I played it caj.

Sure… Techno-thrillers. That’s my jam.

Techno-thrillers are apparently thrillers within the spy, action and war genres that have an emphasis on emerging technology. Who knew.

So reading through Producer’s notes I was a little tickled (badass techno-thriller writer tickled) to see him using the jargon I’d created. Like, really getting into it.

Now, I’ve been creating new media entertainment for years. I’ve received plenty of geeky fanmails wherein viewers spin their wheels about what my characters should do next. Or whether something in my movie would actually work like that. Or that I made some continuity error and so on– Super fans doing what super fans do.

What was different this time was that this was a producer. A producer who is gathering millions of dollars to turn my techno-thriller script into a movie.

Millions of dollars.

And he’s asking me if the widget I invented in the second act could be weaponized by act three.

He’s geeking on my fiction.

And it occurs to me that once upon a time in a galaxy far far away, George Lucas didn’t just create a world that would be so engaging as to one day destroy 14 year old Ghyslain Raza’s social life. He first created a world that had to have made guys in suits geek out on that very same fantasy.

We all saw ourselves in the Star Wars Kid.

Thank goodness Hollywood suits have the confidence to admit it.


… And did I just compare myself to George Lucas? Never you mind. Never you mind.


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Music To My Ears Of Corn

 buddy and I used to joke that we’d get a lot more work done if we set up IV drips beside our desks. If we didn’t have to stop to do things like eat.

Work is what I love. And I love doing what I love. Daily chores, not so much.

I found myself in the big city today. When you live in the woods, the suburbs are the big city. Daily chores. Grocery shopping at one of these giant hangars they stock with irradiated food and call a supermarket. Not my usual joint.

When you walk into a supermarket you’re always greeted with the fresh produce section. This is designed to excite your senses. Make you hungry before you’re funneled toward the processed food sections. Everything in franchise stores is psychology. Deciphering retail ploys is how I amuse myself while doing chores.

I expected the tomatoes, bananas and berries. I did not expect the baby grand piano.

I’ve got a plastic basket on my arm and here’s this guy between the rows of fruit – in a tux – playing piano. Belting out opera with abandon.

Like I said, not my joint. Is this a regular thing? Is this what grocery shopping means now? Live entertainment? If I fill up my tank later does that include a show?

Head down, I move past him and get down to the business at hand.

Wife and I circulate. Divide and conquer our list.

When I join her again I shake my head and remark on the piano man. What a pitiful schlep. A grown man, obviously schooled in his craft, plunking and wailing away in a supermarket on a Sunday afternoon. An organ grinder’s monkey. Humiliated for our delight.

Teenagers working the deli counter comment all too loud that they wish he had a volume knob.

Only a pair of bluehairs stand by the piano. Watch and listen.

By the time I’m on the other end of the hangar, the piano man’s voice has all but faded away. It now mingles with the muzak playing on the PA. I’m looking for canned bamboo shoots when I realized what an idiot I am.

Who the hell am I to judge this guy? I’m out doing chores. On my weekend. The piano man’s playing music. And well. An enviable skill regardless of where or when he’s playing. He’s doing something he clearly loves doing– And hired to do so! The more I think about it, this pitiful schlep has it made!

How can you fault someone who’s found a way – any way – to do what they love?

If even for a minute. If even surrounded by ingrates like me.

Stupid supermarket with its stupid consumer psychology and stupid life lessons…

Good for you supermarket piano man! Play on!

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Just Don’t Be a Jerk

creenwriters look out for each other. Or so I’ve noticed.

It always seemed unlikely to me given the competitiveness of the entertainment industry. It wasn’t until I got a little wiser that I realized that most of that competition is with yourself not your writing buddies.

I don’t mean that philosophically. I mean that I rarely find myself vying for the same goal as another writer. There’s always enough difference in either genre or platform or just where you are in your career that you’re rarely after the same job as someone else. The challenge is always just getting your own writing as sharp as it can be.

So writers look out for each other. Share info on potential gigs. Help introduce each other around. There’s only one rule.

You can’t be a jerk.

I’ve got a writing buddy who’s husband decided to go back to school to become a photographer. A professional photographer.

Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate that. Someone – in the 21st century, when cameras are more ubiquitous than hand soap – decided they wanted to make photography their profession. I suppose newspaper publisher and woolly mammoth herder were too easy a pursuit?

Needless to say, my buddy and husband were fairly strapped for cash pursuant to this decision. Her husband was taking odd jobs where he could find them.

Knowing this, my wife offered him her job during her holiday break a couple years back. He’d already filled in for her once so he knew the drill. Naturally he readily accepted. My writing buddy thanked me. They needed this.

No problem; writers look out for each other.

Trouble is… Apparently adult students studying dying professions don’t appreciate that kind of mutual respect.

My buddy’s husband called three days before Wife’s holiday to say he was bailing. He’d gotten an offer in his prospective field that would overlap his commitment to my wife. He was out. Sorry ’bout that. You understand, right?

After many words cussed to herself in anger, Wife managed to find another replacement. She had to rush to train the new recruit and her holiday was spent fielding calls from a novice, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

The sour taste left in both our mouths however, didn’t quickly fade.

In fact, it flared up with surprising acridity when Wife recently received a call from my buddy’s husband. Seems he was responding to job posting: Her company was on the lookout for a professional event photographer.

I’ll be damned, so that really is still a profession? Fascinating…

He was calling hoping that Wife’d put in a good word for him.

No mention of leaving her in the lurch a couple years back. No apology. Nothing.

Yeah, I think they filled that position. Sorry, she told him.

That’s not sour grapes. Let’s be clear. Because that was my initial reaction. They’re still living hand to mouth– I mean, a writer and a photographer, c’mon. So I felt bad for my buddy. Still wanted to help them out by doing anything I could to help her foolish jerk of a husband.

But here’s why Wife was right to shut it down: It wasn’t for fear of being screwed over again, it was to protect her reputation within her company. This guy’s already proved to be selfish and unreliable. She didn’t need any better reason than that to say no.

The phone rang yesterday. It was for me. A production company responsible for dozens of films. This place just churns out material. The producer on the line was calling because they were in need of action writers. From their track record, a writer could easily find steady work with these guys.

And they were calling me.

I’d been referred to them by another writer. Another buddy altogether who – no slouch himself in the action genre – just didn’t have room for any new work.

Now, I’ve never been a superior human. I’m not terribly thoughtful. Nor well spoken. I’m not great in many, many ways. But I work hard, am reliable and respect my friends.

I’m not a jerk.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

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Kwality Writing

thnic grocery stores are hit and miss. Asian supermarkets, whatever you call them. Those specialty food stores in the neighbourhoods suburban white people don’t usually slow down in. They don’t exactly cater to the mainstream. Or follow the same refrigeration maintenance regulations as your local mega mart.

I know all the ethnic grocery stores in my city. Because I buy a lot of weird shit. And you have to experience each one to sort out the good from the sketch.

At the good specialty store– I’m gonna switch to specialty store; the ethnic thing is starting to make me uncomfortable. At the good specialty store you find amazing culinary surprises that you’d never in a million years find in even the most well stocked specialty section of your local franchise supermarket.

At the last bad specialty store I was in, I found maggots. They were writhing around in the packaged nuts. What’s that old joke: What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Finding half a worm. Cut your losses. Put down basket. Walk calmly out of store. Never return. Count yourself lucky it was before checkout.

It was at a place called “Kwality Market”. The place has been there for as long as I can remember. Somehow it does business. Enough people are okay with maggoty nuts for this place to remain open. You’d think that after so many years, the place would have to be quality; with a Q!

Now when Wife and I refer to something that should be good but is of inferior quality we refer to it as “Kwality with a K”.

“I thought this rocking chair was going to be great but it collapsed as soon as I sat down. That shit was kwality with a “k”.”

Periodically I receive query letters. Because I produced many of my own projects in the past, it seems my contact information has gotten onto some lists. Lists of producers or production companies that writers (not unlike myself) use to query their scripts.

A couple years ago, while still querying on a daily basis myself, I received my first script query from this writer we’ll call Scotty. Scotty had accomplished a lot. According to IMDB he already had a couple scripts produced. He’d won awards. His query letter, however, was the exact opposite of what I’d argue is the effective way to query.

The subject line was a mess. The email itself was extremely long winded. As was his logline. What’s more is his script sounded just terrible; some hackey cheerleader slasher thing. And he was clearly using an impersonal mailing list spammer. With a half-assed list, no less.

But he’d been produced… I couldn’t fault that. He was obviously unrepresented. Maybe he’d just fallen through the cracks. Who knows. I moved on and forgot about him.

… Until he queried me again. And again. Every six months or so. The latest hit my inbox just this week. The same rambling query letters. And his beyond the pale story ideas.

But this time I noticed something. Scotty’s list of accomplishments just gets long and longer. In this latest letter the script he was pitching last time and the time before that have both been optioned. Somebody had apparently optioned that hackey cheerleader slasher thing.

Now an option can mean a few things. Many options are what are called dollar options. Agreements signed for the token sum of $1 to see if the project can get off the ground. Mostly they don’t.

I wouldn’t want to assume anything about Scotty. Not saying his options weren’t legit. But he’s still querying like crazy which would suggest his phone isn’t exactly ringing off the hook.

The whole thing got me intrigued. I researched the producers responsible for these options. Found a whole world of B-movie producers with dozens of credits. It really seems like people are in fact responding to Scotty’s query letters. This doesn’t tell me if Scotty’s on his way or not, but he’s obviously getting reads.


For years.

Off these really terrible, kwality with a “k” ideas.

Scotty’s the old specialty market that’s been there forever. Everything about it seems wrong. There doesn’t seem to be any way this place can still be open after all these years – maggots, I’m telling you – and yet there it is.

Kwality Market.

It’s not for me, but to hell with my opinion: Somebody’s buying.

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